My first six-week term at Rhodes University, South Africa, started with “Suicide Sunday” and ended with “Hell week”. These are names given by “Rhodents” for the first Sunday back of the term, where everyone is reunited so gets on the lash only to be incredibly hungover for the first Monday morning lectures, and the final week of term where assessments for every course are due in, meaning back-to-back hand-ins. Much has changed regarding my perspective from my first arrival to six weeks into my study abroad experience and it is an understatement to say that it has been a huge learning experience.
I had a long journey from Johannesburg, where I landed, to Grahamstown, 13 hours overnight by bus. When I woke up and was told we were approaching Grahamstown I was shocked that we were still going through dry African landscape and could not imagine that a University town could be here, in the middle of nowhere, or so it felt. However, when we reached the town centre and then the University I was pleasantly surprised at the beautiful campus which included all of the halls of residence, dining halls, department buildings and a modern library. I arrived a week before the second semester started so to have an “orientation week” with the other 20 exchange students. My introduction to campus life at Rhodes ran so smoothly. The International Officer was extremely friendly and welcoming and put everyone at ease, making it straight-forward for us to get registered at the University. From there she took us on a tour of the town, followed by a Campus tour in a golf buggy. The rest of the week involved talks including ‘Internationalisation at Rhodes’, explaining to us how the international office works to accommodate such a diverse student body, with students coming from overseas and all over Africa to study at Rhodes University and also how they address world issues by engaging with them locally on a University level. I was grateful for how helpful the international office was in getting us in touch with our departments so to sign up for modules and in arranging library tours for us.
For our first weekend in Grahamstown we visited the township on an organised tour, to be introduced to Xhosa culture. The tour started with an explanation of how townships came to be during the apartheid era, built on the periphery of towns and cities, reserved for non-white residents. The African National Congress (ANC) have been in power since 1994, since South Africa became a democratic country, and has since built permanent housing to replace underdeveloped urban living areas. In the township we visited an orphanage home where a “Momma” looks after about 16 children and got to play games such as “21 Questions” and “piggie-in-the-middle” altogether. We saw the countless number of churches, the community and arts centre and schools before reaching the house of a famous Xhosa traditional dancer. Here we ate traditional Xhosa food and got to listen and watch traditional songs and dances, I loved getting to see so many aspects of such a vibrant culture. Though I worked in rural Swaziland for a year as a volunteer, my eyes were still opened to seeing how differently people were living just in one town, from those in the township compared to those who inhabit Grahamstown town centre and the University campus.
Settling into the “res”, university accommodation, was an interesting transition. Now I’m living with 72 girls in one big hall of residence with single rooms, with girls from all over Africa. South Africa is a country with 11 official languages so you can imagine the diversity.
I have really enjoyed getting involved with clubs and societies including the ‘Trail Running’ group where I’ve gotten to see amazing views and sunsets. I also heard about auditions to be in a Shakespeare production, directed by masters directing students, so just went for it. In six weeks we put on a comic twenty-minute version of Romeo and Juliet. The experience gave me the opportunity to meet lots more students and make great friends with similar interests.
As for my courses, in a political climate such as South Africa’s current post-apartheid atmosphere, themes of decolonisation are still very much prevalent, as the transition from white apartheid rule to social democracy still has a far way to go to being complete. As a Brit sitting in history lectures and seminars about the colonisation of the Cape and then domination by the British, confronting the colonial past from which I come from becomes ever-more immediate when seeing the real consequences and legacy of such a history. I found it invaluable to witness debates about how to address this history, how it should be written, and what is the way forward for South Africa now. This is how I knew that I had made the right decision to come on study abroad. I asked myself how I could be a student of literature and history without being confronted with the lived-experiences of those who share the same world, those of who may see something from a completely different social, cultural and historical perspective.
I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the semester holds and actually getting uncomfortable, I’ve now seen the benefits of moving outside of my comfort zone and want to make the most of my time here!